Romaniote Jews of Crete
by Alex Archer
It's that time of year again and the Archers are back on their travels. This time we're in Crete. We were here 5 or 6 years ago, but Crete is such a fascinating island that we just had to come back for more.
Chania, Crete's second city, was the location of our first trip. Just like any tourist city, it is gridlocked by slow moving cars and crowds all aiming in opposite directions. We were no exception - our aim was the underground car park slightly away from the main spots where, after winding down the narrowest of turnings, we found probably the last spot on the lowest floor!
The main attraction drawing people to Chania is its serene harbour which is attributable to the Venetians, just one of Crete's many conquerors, who were here hundreds of years ago. After following the crowds, taking a number of wrong turns (and that was with the help of the tourist map) we arrived, hot and somewhat agitated with each other, and stopped for refreshments. Just watching the sea and the occasional to-ing and fro-ing of the glass bottomed tourist boats, with the obligatory large servings of ice cream, we could have sat there forever.
I got the family up and we walked to the ruined fort and the Naval Museum at the harbour mouth. We had seen them before, and although they are well worth a visit, this time we just wanted to take in the views of the Venetian architecture. Few people actually venture out of the shade to appreciate this, but not to do so means that they miss out on the true beauty of the port.
We then walked back to the narrow streets of the old city. Some of the buildings are so close that they are almost touching, but sadly, in keeping with the way life evolves today, any photos would be adorned with the colourful graffiti found everywhere, perhaps more than usual as a result of the current Greek Euro and austerity debates.
We enjoyed the shade created by these narrow streets and the hustle and bustle of the shops selling the usual souvenirs. Although I "allowed" a little deviation into the local craft and ceramic shops, the family are used to my ways and they knew that really I was aiming for the Jewish quarter and if one existed, the shul.
Very soon it was upon us. Ironically, as we spotted the very open signs for the shul, we were accosted by the owner of the restaurant at the entrance of the short road leading to it, enticing us in to sample their traditional Cretan stews of goat and rabbit, all cooked and served in a clay pot. Clearly, it was not quite what we were after and so continued past.
At the entrance of the shul we could see that it was tiny. Physically it was the smallest shul we had ever encountered on our travels, but inside its presence was huge. In the open courtyard, two ladies were chatting but they stopped to invite us in and encouraged us to look around.
There were signs requesting no photos. But of course, as soon as I explained that I was a roving reporter for the Woodside Park shul and showed off our brilliant website, naturally with particular emphasis on my previous articles, I was actively encouraged to take lots of photos.
The shul is very much a memorial to the community that was once here. In fact it is the only surviving Jewish monument of a community which can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The Jews of Crete may not have been numerous, but at one time there were sufficient for several shuls. However it was not to last. By 1941, following high levels of emigration, there were only two remaining, both in Chania.
And then the Nazis arrived. The shuls were reduced to rubble, and only Etz Hayyim was left in any state enabling it to rise back up out of its total desecration. However the schools and cemeteries were gone forever. On 29 May 1944 the whole Jewish population, 265 Jewish lives, were arrested, and imprisoned. Shortly after they were taken to Heraklion and put on a ship, the Tanais, en route to the death camps. As they sailed away, at 3am on 9 June 1944, two British torpedoes smashed into the boat wiping out almost the entire Jewish population of Crete, together with 500 Greek and Italian prisoners of war. 2,300 years of Cretan Jews wiped out in an instant.
The Cretan Jews were Romaniote but following the horrific tragedy of the War there are none surviving who grew up with these cultures and traditions and today the shul follows the Sephardi customs. The Romaniote language of Judeo Greek all but disappeared. However so as not to eliminate the culture completely from Crete, the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur is read from a photocopied text produced by a small community of Romaniotes found in New York.
Just seven of the Romaniote Jews from Crete survived. Albert and Victoria Minervos, the last president of the synagogue and his wife, who had been in Athens at the time of the mass arrest. A fisherman who had taken his boat out on the day the Nazis arrested the community. Another who jumped across the balcony to hide with non-Jewish neighbours. A mother, daughter and her infant son. The son is alive today, the only blood connection to the original community, but sadly he was not brought up in the Romaniote culture and is unable to pass on the traditions.
Etz Hayyim remained in a poor, filthy, desecrated state for fifty years following the war. It was taken over by squatters who divided it up between the families using components of the Ark, Bimah and the benches to create makeshift partitions. Stone inscriptions were torn down and used to fill the opening through which the women looked into the synagogue from their small gallery. In their ignorance they dug into the walls and marble paving stones in search of buried gold and used the mikveh as a rubbish tip.
Throughout the long history of Etz Hayyim, it has always managed to survive all the horrendous experiences that life could throw at it - conquering nations, earthquakes, and more - but it took the sheer will and perseverance of one man, Nikos Stavroulakis and those who believed in him, to bring the shul back from its Nazi desecration and the rubbish from the squatters who followed, to its former glory and restore it to not just a tourist attraction, but a functioning shul for the few Cretan Jews and its many visitors.
In 1995, a severe earthquake damaged what was left of the synagogue bringing it to the point of imminent collapse. The urgency of the situation led to Nikos Stravroulakis presenting a paper at a conference held by the World Monuments Fund and the Jewish Heritage Program. Very soon after, Etz Hayyim was named as one of the World's 100 most endangered monuments of international cultural concern. Initial funds were granted, Nikos Stavroulakis was made Project Director, Co-ordinator and Fund Raiser and the restoration began in 1998.
It took two very hot summer months to clean the mikveh. Broken pottery and glass from shattered chandeliers were extracted from the vile sludge that had accumulated there over the years, together with the remains of dead cats and dogs. Eventually the pure spring water flowed as it had done so fifty years before. At the end of two months of scrubbing, the area could be called a mikveh once again.
The entrance courtyard used to contain the shul's surprisingly large collection of books, but following the firebombing in 2010, the library was lost and although the stock has been wonderfully replenished through kind donations, the books no longer line the courtyard. There is an office at the back and upstairs, immediately above it, is another small room which is used for exhibitions.
Moving through a doorway on the left takes us into the shul. It had its own unique atmosphere. I found it to be very peaceful even with the other tourists coming in to look around. A couple of sleepy cats were lying lazily on the pews.
The Ark is on the East wall, behind an Indian designed curtain. Inside there are two Sifrei Torahs, one from Cairo and the other, originally from Prague, found its way here after the war via the Westminster Memorial Scrolls Trust in London. Affixed to either side of the Ark, there are two sets of Rimonim (scroll handle decorations). The wooden greenish pair was made based on an older, discarded pair that Nikos Stavroulakis had found during the excavations of the back courtyard.
To the right, on the West wall was the Bimah. This is in keeping with Romaniote traditions, as opposed to our traditions which locate the Bimah towards the centre of the Shul. The wooden pews were arranged either side, against the North and South walls, with a cushion for each seat. This layout is specifically designed to enable all the congregation to reach out and touch the Torah as it is brought from the Ark to the Bimah and back again.
Behind the green and blue curtain on the south wall is a cupboard in which the kiddish cup and other religious utensils are stored. The curtain was designed by Nikos Stavroulakis and depicts his calligraphy of the Shema.
Passing through the shul led us to another quiet courtyard or garden.
Here we found a small cemetery with the graves of four rabbis. Rabbi Joseph B. Shlomo (d. 1821) and his brother Rabbi Baruh Shlomo (d. 1841). There was also a grave of Rabbi Avraham Z. Habib of Gallipoli who died in 1858 and a fourth grave of Rabbi Hillel Eskenazi, a noted mystic and kabbalist who died in 1710. Interestingly, Rabbi Hillel's tomb was found in the support wall of the stone stairs to the women's section, rather than lying with the other three. By the number of stones on each, it was clear that there had been continual visitors.
To the right, we found the Mikveh which, following its restoration, is one of the oldest still functioning to be found in Greece. It is fed by an underground spring and, as a result, is extremely cold; so cold that some people may prefer to use the sea instead!
Outside the shul, adjacent to the entrance courtyard, is found a cafe, called The Synagogue Cafe. This has nothing to do with Etz Hayyim, but it is the site of the original Talmud Torah School.
Every Friday, the shul holds a Kabbalat Shabbat welcoming everyone from the ultra-orthodox to the non-observant, man and woman, boy and girl, and even non-Jews who wish to take part in the atmosphere of prayer. There are rarely sufficient for a Shabbat morning minyan, but the holidays and festivals are all celebrated. In keeping with Greek Jewish custom, a communal fish meal is held Erev Rosh Hashana and also sometimes to break the fast on Yom Kippur. A Succah is built for Succot and a Seder is held for the regular American, British, French, Greek and Israeli guests who come specifically to Crete to celebrate Pesach.
The people of Crete are remarkably tolerant. Based upon the huge number of churches, chapels and small shrines which can be seen in whichever direction you look, the vast majority of the population follows Christianity. However it has been people of many faiths and cultures who have helped restore the Shul and inject the Romaniote Jewish spirit back into Etz Hayyim. When the shul was attacked in 2010, the Muslim and Christians quickly came to the aid of the Jews and all are welcome into the shul, particularly for Friday night prayers.
Although no one had been charged, the fire bomb attacks in 2010 are believed to have been the acts of American, British or Greek individuals and not that of any Cretan. So, with the added extra security of newly installed CCTV, the shul continues to be well signposted, clearly open and welcomes everyone who wishes to come and see.
I have not gone into much depth to tell you about the history and restoration of Etz Hayyim. To do so would require copying huge chunks from the shul's website: www.etz-hayyim-hania.org and their Commemorative Album. Instead I strongly urge you to read these for your own fascination. The album which was so kindly given to me is now in our shul library for the whole community to refer to. Please do just this and keep alive the memory of the Romaniote Jews of Crete. Better still, when visiting Crete, go and see Etz Hayyim; it is mentioned in many tour guides and can be found on most city maps of Chania.